Ricardo Borges de Castro / Oct 2021
After Biden’s successful June visit to Europe, sealed by “America is back,” the US fiasco in Afghanistan heated up the transatlantic summer to scorching temperatures. As tensions were cooling down, the AUKUS defence pact between the US, Australia and the UK brought relations between Paris and Washington close to a boiling point, blistering the broader transatlantic relationship, as well as EU interests in other corners of the world. America’s return was, after all, premature.
The Afghan and the AUKUS crises make one thing clear: diplomacy between the EU and US isn’t working. Despite going along with NATO’s Summit June communiqué that confirmed the end of the alliance’s mission in Afghanistan, Europeans were quick to criticise the US for presenting them with a fait accompli and not considering their interests.
AUKUS is worse, and the failure of diplomacy there goes beyond Washington. London, which has a security and defence treaty with Paris, and Canberra were also to blame. Together, they left the French with an egg in the face, a sunken multi-billion-euro worth submarine contract, and a major diplomatic upset in a part of the world where Paris has clear strategic interests and presence.
France’s initial legitimate outrage soon linked the AUKUS mess to issues beyond its foreign policy to gain leverage. Besides recalling home its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra, Paris basically put the brakes on the EU’s trade negotiations with Australia and threatened to postpone the launch of the EU-US Trade and Technology Council (TTC). The Council did, in the end, take place on 29 September, albeit with a diluted agenda in some areas, such as semiconductors, due to French pressure.
But there is more. The AUKUS pact was revealed to the world at the same time as the EU announced its Indo-Pacific Strategy, completely overshadowing it. This oversight is probably another example of the breakdown in diplomacy. But perhaps the reason is even worse: for the US, the EU has become either irrelevant or unreliable for its geopolitical considerations in Asia.
The withdrawal from Afghanistan and the AUKUS pact is the consolidation of the US’ pivot to Asia, initiated under the Obama administration. This geostrategic reordering spells trouble for the transatlantic relationship, especially if both sides do not talk to each other regularly. In fact, the strategic interests of allies on both sides of the Atlantic may be diverging to a point of no return. From a purely geopolitical standpoint, for the EU, its neighbourhood to the East and to the South is far more important than the distant Chinese threat that Washington perceives.
But the US decision to exclude France and even the EU from its strategic considerations in the Indo-Pacific is a short-sighted mistake that plays into Beijing’s hands. Instead of using diplomacy and persuasion to assuage European concerns and try to bring the EU along, the US seems unwilling to invest more political and diplomatic capital in building a stronger coalition based on common interests. The reference to the EU’s Indo-Pacific Strategy in the recent QUAD statement coming out of the White House is a welcome diplomatic Band-Aid, but needs to be backed by concrete actions.
Avoiding transatlantic wreck
2022 is a crucial year for transatlantic relations. The EU and the US might end embarking on a turbulent political period, with unpredictable consequences for the alliance and the unity of the EU, which tends to fracture at each Euro-Atlantic crisis. There are already too many ‘irritants’ and it would be unwise to downplay the seriousness of the current squabble.
On this side of the pond, Paris takes the helm of the Council of the EU in January 2022 and is holding presidential elections in April 2022. Internally, Macron must assert the country’s sovereignty and place in the world after such humiliation. At the EU level, he will press for ‘strategic autonomy’ and further steps to strengthen common European security. The temptation to push, what Charles Michel recently called the year of European defence, in opposition to the US could be high and risks further undermining the cohesion of the transatlantic alliance as well as EU unity.
On the other side of the pond, domestic politics will dominate the attention of the Biden administration in the coming year. Washington will be focused on the mid-term elections in November 2022, the results of which are unpredictable and could be a downward turning point for the administration. This uncertainty, together with the Afghan and AUKUS cockups, reinforces the idea held by some Europeans that the US has become an unreliable partner. It is no longer just about Trump. It is a trend.
As the world becomes more competitive and volatile, the US and the EU would do well to restore transatlantic diplomacy and mutual trust to avoid a point of no return in their ties. Ultimately, it depends on the will of transatlantic partners to be back in a relationship, either open or closed.